Blog post

Innovation Districts: A space to innovate

An innovation district is a contemporary model of urban development that aims to build a community of entities that advance innovation in a local area. Districts are formed by clusters of institutions and businesses and are supported by urban infrastructure to help facilitate knowledge-exchange, idea generation and commercialization of innovation.

Underpinned by the concept of the innovation ecosystem, the central focus of the innovation district is to foster a synergy between economic, networking and physical assets in the community. Built around urban design principles of density, proximity and accessibility, districts are physically compact spaces, that are transit-accessible and technologically equipped.

As the popularity of innovation districts rises, innovation districts can now be found in over 100 cities worldwide and in regions which vary vastly in terms of economic development. Helping to increase productivity and growth, they advance technology driven economies.

What innovation districts offer cities

Innovation districts contribute immensely to the development of a city, making them a highly attractive investment to regions looking to advance industry through innovation. Districts help to diversify and stimulate economies though innovation development, expanded employment opportunities, and increased business activities.

Innovation districts also contribute to a city's social dynamism by repopulating discarded urban areas, creating dynamic public spaces, providing educational opportunities for residents, and bringing prosperity to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. They offer affordable housing options and interesting incentives for real estate developers.

Innovation districts principles

Innovation districts are guided by key principles that underpin the way they are developed and how they function and operate.

Open innovation

Traditionally, the development of new business processes has taken place with the boundaries of an organization’s four walls. Open Innovation is a modern concept of innovation that works on the notion that entities outside of an organization can also contribute to achieving an organization's strategic goals. Open innovation works around the belief that there should be no barriers to gaining ideas for innovation. There should be a free flow of information sharing between organizations and entities. Innovative companies increase their innovation processes' efficiency by combining internal and external paths to advance new technology development. Innovation districts work on the principle of open innovation, in that communities are purpose-built to facilitate an ecosystem of exchange of knowledge and ideas between various entities.

District narrative

The district narrative can be defined as the ‘story’ of the district; why was it built, for who was it built for and what are its intentions for the future. Each district is built with a vision in mind of what it intends to achieve; be it a technical hub to advance life sciences in the region, a place where to grow the digital economy of a city or an area where young companies can successfully nurture their ideas, each district has a specific narrative of what it represents. The districts’ narrative should be firmly understood by the district entities and strongly grounded in the design of the area.

Sense of community

Developing a strong sense of community is vital to facilitate gainful connections and exchanges in the district. Here the infrastructure plays a key role; open spaces where community members converge, common facilities where technologies can be shared, and structures where entities are within close proximity all help to facilitate a community of innovation.

Innovation district entities

As an innovation ecosystem, the innovation district consists of a diverse set of stakeholders and community members that are critical to its functioning. Entities in the district are composed of:

  • Research and educational institutions
  • Companies
  • Startups
  • Accelerators
  • Incubators
  • Investors
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Real estate companies
  • Local government

Innovation district assets

Innovation districts consist of many different moving parts which help to fuel its community.

The innovators

At the heart of the district are its innovators, which includes research and educational institutions, businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs, that work to develop cutting-edge technologies and solutions that advance innovation. Districts can comprise innovators from many different backgrounds and sectors, which help bring their unique industry expertise to the ecosystem.

Infrastructures and spaces

Physical infrastructures and spaces, such as buildings, streets and communal spaces, in innovation districts are built in ways that encourage connectivity and creativity. Public spaces are digitally equipped, with infrastructures such as high-speed WIFI, and can also serve as spaces to test and pilot new technologies.

Buildings and office spaces are configured in ways which help to encourage coworking and sharing of ideas. Office buildings also take into consideration spaces for smaller SMEs and sole entrepreneurs, as well as areas for research such as laboratories.


Networking is one of the key components in building a sense of connectivity within innovation districts. Fostering opportunities and facilitating events for networking helps community members improve their skill set, meet potential mentors and clients, and stay on top of industry trends. Networking events can be facilitated by different entities in the district, either on-site company locations or in dedicated event venues. Networking can also happen in informal settings, such as shared office spaces, open public spaces in the district, and shared facilities, such as labs or canteens.


As with any urban space, having key amenities within the innovation district, such as stores, restaurants, accommodation and medical centers, is important for the daily lives of the workers and residents in the community.

Digital platforms for innovation districts

In order to foster innovation, districts need to have the right infrastructure in place. As much as the physical infrastructure is important to the functioning of a district, as is the digital and technological infrastructure of the area. Connectivity and collaboration are not only formed through open spaces but are also advanced through the right digital platforms shared in the community.

Innovation management platforms are software tools employed by organizations to enable the digital management of innovation initiatives. Innovation management systems support innovation teams with program administration and offer idea management capabilities, workflow, project management and internal and external collaboration functionalities.

Innovation management platforms help to culminate information about the entire innovation ecosystem in one place, giving district entities a digital space where to innovate. Innovation management platforms also help individual district entities manage a wide range of innovation initiatives, from open calls and challenges, ideation programs, and innovation resource mapping.

How to run innovation districts

Clear Vision

Having a clear vision of the future is one of the most important tenets of the district’s growth strategy. A district needs to build upon its entities' strength and the strength of its local region to inform its future. Attracting the right talents and technologies to the district is also a key component of this.

To ensure that the entire community is moving in unison, the district leaders need to promote the community's inclusive growth. Entities need to understand the district's vision and how this ties into their own progression to ensure the productive output for the entire district.

Collaborative Exercise

Districts operate on an ecosystem composed of a varying cluster of entities; given this dispersed structure, it is imperative that leadership of the district is a collaborative exercise.


Governance of the area needs to be informed by its various stakeholders, who take charge of its design, development and future vision.

Case Studies

Mind Milano

Considered the innovation heartland of Italy, Milan has a long history of promoting technological advancements in the country, as well as on an international stage. To capitalize on the success of EXPO

2015, Milan wanted to develop an innovation district in the city which would further help to promote innovation in the area.

Named MIND Milano, the districts central vision is to enhance the daily lives of people and to advance both the country's sustainable economic growth, as well as its international growth, through scientific, economic and social innovations fostered in the district.

MIND has attracted cooperation from a number of key institutions in the region, and aims to create a vibrant community where innovators can easily connect and where a community of exchange and collaboration is fostered.

22@ Barcelona

Credited as the first innovation district in the world 22@ was conceived in 2000 in the area of Poblenou, Barcelona. Once a place of great industrial advancement, the area of Poblenou had become discarded during downturn of industrial growth in the 1960s.

In 2000, the city of Barcelona developed a Master plan for the redevelopment of the area. With the aim of developing an area comprised of knowledge-intensive activities and companies, the city wanted the district to become a pivotal economic hub of the city. The project's central goals included the urban refurbishment and economic and social revitalization of the area.

Today 22@ is considered a blueprint for innovation district design. Well over 4,000 companies have been located in the district since its conception, and it accounts for around 15% of economic activity in Barcelona. The district supports education in information-driven activities, and many universities have come to establish a presence in the area.

Boston’s Innovation District

Inspired by 22@, the Boston Innovation District was one of the first, officially labeled, innovation districts in the USA. Conceived In 2010, the district was an initiative of the Mayor of Boston who was interested in creating a hub in the city that would house cutting edge industries.

The city envisaged the district as an urban laboratory, a place of experimentation and creativity, where all Bostonians could benefit from the shared innovation the district produced. The district actively promotes collaboration; creating an ecosystem which fosters growth and development.

Since its conception 5,000 new jobs have been created in the area, with over 200 startups taking post in the district. Many entities needed for these young companies to grow, such as accelerators and incubators, have also moved into the area. From an economic perspective the district is thriving and continues to grow as an important economic hub in the city.

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